BY LINDA McGURK
COLFAX, Ind.—Raising all-natural, pastured meat on a small farm is one thing. Getting that meat processed in accordance with your farming philosophy and your customers’ preferences in a time when small meat processing plants are all but extinct is another. For Erick and Jessica Smith, who run This Old Farm in rural Darlington, Ind., the response from meat processors over the past ten years have been a long string of, “Sorry, we can’t do that,” even when they’ve offered to pay extra. Not anymore. Last week, the couple officially opened their own meat processing plant in Colfax, Ind. “If somebody would’ve told me 10 years ago we would do this, I would’ve laughed,” Erick Smith said during a brief break from the celebration preparations. “It’s great to see all this come to fruition.”
The Smiths, who run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) as well as raise pastured beef, pork, poultry and eggs, had initially planned to build a meat processing plant on their farm, but when they crunched the numbers, buying the existing processing plant in Colfax that had come up for sale made more financial sense. With the help of two grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and matching funds from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, they closed on the 7,000-square-feet plant six months ago.
“They’ve done a lot of remodeling and put in new equipment,” said Mike Bruton, who owned the plant for a decade and now works there as a meat cutter. “We’ve got new products coming online almost weekly. We do beef, pork, chicken, lamb, goats, bison. We pretty much do it all.”
As opposed to large, consolidated meat processing plants, This Old Farm Meats and Processing caters mainly to small family farms as well as “backyard” producers who don’t want to do their own processing. The plant, which is state inspected, specializes in full-service, custom slaughter and is in the process of becoming certified organic. The staff only slaughter one animal at a time, and the meat can be processed any number of ways; whole or half, or as choice cuts, hams, brats, burgers, piggy links and more. For bacon, This Old Farm offers natural celery juice cures with no added salt nitrates or nitrites, and sausages can be prepared without the commonly used MSG (monosodium glutamate) and preservatives. “Some customers are very selective with how they want their meat processed and (until now) we didn’t have a lot of options,” Smith said.
The plant is also open for retail sales throughout the week, except Tuesdays and Sundays. “You can come in and buy one steak or you can buy a whole beef. Everything is source verified, so you’ll know which farmer raised the meat,” Bruton said. “If we get people in the door once, we’ve got them. There’s a big difference in taste, and people now are a lot more conscious of where their meat comes from and how it is processed.”
But the Smiths’ vision for the plant doesn’t end with the ceremonial cutting of the ribbon. Over the next five years, they plan to turn it into a state-of-the art facility to be enjoyed by a broad swath of the community. At the heart of those plans is a community kitchen, where people could turn their gardens’ bounty into value-added food products to be sold at farmers’ markets and elsewhere. They also plan to make the facility a poster child for energy efficiency. “The big thing for us is that we use a lot of electricity and hot water,” Smith said. “We’re looking at capturing energy from the coolers – the heat that’s normally just released into the atmosphere – and use it to preheat our water. That way we’d be able to reduce the amount of propane we use to heat the water.”
In accordance with the Smiths’ farming philosophy, the processing plant open house was a showcase of local, natural foods, and the attending producers seemed excited about the new possibilities. “Before, we had to go to Illinois to get our chickens processed, so this made it a lot easier for us,” said Nate Parks, owner of Tranquil Ridge Farm in Darlington, Ind.
Parks, who grows vegetables for his CSA and raises 1,000-1,500 pastured broilers per year, said he believes the plant will fill a growing consumer demand. “The worst part of our rural communities is that we’ve lost so much infrastructure. (The Smiths) really believe in what they do and if we have people like them to run it, it’s a no-brainer. I feel great about it.”
For more information about This Old Farm Meats and Processing, go to: www.thisoldfarminc.com or email email@example.com.